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The future of fragrance is positively sci-fi

TextLiam Hess

As tech continues to enhance our sensory experiences, scent is the final frontier ready to be crossed: from perfume playlists to virtual smells, is this the future of fragrance?

In 2019, we see colours across the full spectrum on 4K HD screens or VR headsets. We stream our favourite music and podcasts in lossless audio, transmitted via Bluetooth to our noise-cancelling headphones. We use fingerprints to unlock our smartphones, apply varying pressure to perform different functions. Even the way we taste has experienced its very own behind-the-scenes revolution: we order our takeaways via Deliveroo, our ready meals are prepared and packed by robots and cruelty-free burger patties grown in vitro are now available at your local supermarket.

Yet by comparison, our relationship with scent seems remarkably old fashioned. A spritz of perfume applied in the morning fades by lunchtime, a tree-shaped air freshener in our car sends an acrid blast of (allegedly) fresh pine up our nostrils, a scented candle lulls us gently to sleep if we’re feeling decadent. As tech continues to enhance our sensory experiences, scent is the final frontier ready to be crossed.

“A big problem was that until 2004, when a team of olfactory researchers won the Nobel Prize, we didn’t fully understand how scent worked,” explains David A. Edwards, a professor of bioengineering at Harvard University whose pioneering project oNotes saw him develop a system to digitise and send scents via the internet. “Since then there’s been a quiet revolution in how we understand scent as it relates to wellness: it’s the only sensory signal that goes straight to the brain, and it’s profoundly important to our health.”

“oNotes allows the user to make playlists of preferred fragrances, overriding our instinct to acclimatise to a new scent after just a few minutes, a phenomenon nicknamed olfactory fatigue”

Described by Wired as “the iTunes of smells”, oNotes allows the user to make playlists of preferred fragrances, overriding our instinct to acclimatise to a new scent after just a few minutes, a phenomenon nicknamed olfactory fatigue. These playlists can be set up to energise us in the morning – peppermint, citrus, coffee – or soothe us in the evening – lavender, chamomile, jasmine – and the benefits have been proven by scientific research as significant.

“There are recent studies that have proven our emotional intelligence in the workplace can be doubled by the use of these scent playlists at specific times of the day,” adds Edwards. “Our home, our workplace, our travel environments all produce light, sound and haptic signals that shape our wellbeing – so it makes sense that in five years’ time this will include scent signals, too. 

It isn’t just the ambient scents that surround our daily lives that are being radically rethought, but also our relationship with the more personal world of perfume. Released in 2015, eScent is a device that marries innovations in fragrance with the trend for wearable tech that has seen the FitBit become the wellness accessory du jour. It spritzes perfume via a wristwatch or necklace at opportune moments. Its founder, Dr. Jenny Tillotson, notes that we have to look back to the origins of the human relationship with fragrance to be able to rethink it. “In the modern world, we underuse our sense of smell because it has been replaced by the dominant audio and visual stimuli,” says Tillotson. “In prehistoric times, the sensory appreciation of our ancestors could detect danger, ripe food, diseases, when females were ovulating, but today we rely on data to inform us of all of these things. Going back to that could have benefits ranging from allergies to sleep to mental health.”

The other limitation of our present relationship with scent is our means of applying it: once Tillotson points out the flaws of the perfume bottle or spritzer, it does seem surprisingly rudimentary. “Most of it gets lost in the environment,” she explains. “It fades after a few hours, the bottles are heavy and easily breakable, there are very limited options for blending or layering. And on top of that, most perfumes are over two-thirds ethanol, which dries and irritates the skin, not to mention the chemical smell that can obscure the delicate top notes of the scent when you first apply it.”

What Tillotson touches on with her acknowledgment of blending and layering is the trend for bespoke scents that has swept through the fragrance industry over the last few years, whether the rapid ascent of specialised indie perfumeries like Byredo or Le Labo, more literal customisation via the lower-priced fragrance combination service offered by Jo Malone, or the made-to-order perfumes offered from £15k upwards by cult perfumer Azzi Glasser at her London atelier. The rarefied world of bespoke fragrance can cost hundreds of thousands of pounds... but what if we could use tech to deliver this service for the price of a bottle of Chanel No. 5?

There has hardly been a moment over the past 12 months where the implications of data harvesting by social media giants hasn’t uncovered new and more disturbing consequences: from Cambridge Analytica to the Trump and Brexit campaigns, to the increasing ubiquity of targeted ads. Now the team behind IBM’s Philyra – an AI algorithm that tailors scents to a particular demographic or consumer – are optimistic about the future of tech’s relationship with scent, describing Philyra as an example of how “computers can be creative”. Inspired by Chef Watson, a 2016 IBM app that comes up with original recipes based on combinations of  flavour, it collates data from your digital activity to concoct your perfect scent. “It’s easy to be sceptical,” says Dr. Richard Goodwin, the brains behind the project. “But AI has an important role to play in helping people find new ways to improve their personal wellbeing, expression and creativity.”

“With the ability of our smartphones to track the daily steps we take, our pulse, our blood pressure, surely welcoming the ability of scent to improve our overall health is a natural, even valuable, next step?”

It’s natural to find this infiltration of tech into our most basic human behaviours chilling, especially in the realm of scent, given its close ties to emotion. But perhaps big tech isn’t so malevolent after all. Chandler Burr – the New York Times’ first (and only) perfume critic and the founder of the department of olfactory art at New York’s Museum of Arts and Design – also has an eye firmly placed on the fruitful relationship between big tech and fragrance.

“Technology has always influenced the medium of fragrance, as it has changed every single medium of art history,” explains Burr. “With scent it’s taken us from crude primitive essences like steam to carbon dioxide extractions and molecular fracturation, creating extraordinary synthetic scent molecules that give artists the ability to create works in scent that we never imagined.”

An easy criticism to level at the fragrance market is the essential equivalence of scent with memory, and therefore with nostalgia. That this should result in any kind of stagnation, Burr vehemently disagrees. “No great artist working in the medium of paint, or clay, or music, or scent is ever stuck in nostalgia: for the simple reason that those who are, are not great,” Burr continues. “Fuck your madeleine, fuck Proust, and fuck for once and for all the moronic, reductive, stultifying idea that scent is closely linked to memory.”

In response to Burr’s words on the inherently future-facing art of scent, I’m reminded of a point made by David A. Edwards: “The future of health is not just about healing sickness, but about improving wellness.” With the ability of our smartphones to track the daily steps we take, our pulse, our blood pressure, surely welcoming the ability of scent to improve our overall health is a natural, even valuable, next step? It’s only a matter of time before these technologies seep quietly into our lives, not unlike scent itself. To paraphrase Mr. Burr: forget your clunky perfume bottle. If we can now harness fragrance to offer us the utopian benefits the rest of the wellness market is offering, perhaps it’s time we open our arms to the future of scent once and for all.

Liam Hess is a writer from London. He is features editor of Buffalo Zine and editor at The Leopard.

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